On Sept. 24, when Pope Francis delivered his address to a joint session of Congress during his trip to the United States, two representatives of the Diocese of Buffalo were in the room. Sister Johnice Rzadkiewicz, CSSF, director of the Response to Love Center in Buffalo, and Father James J. Maher, CM, president of Niagara University, were the invited guests of Congressman Brian Higgins. After the address, Sister Johnice provided some of her thoughts on the experience of hearing Pope Francis speak.
"Being there in Congress was the most electrifying experience for me - just seeing everyone there, the senators, the congressmen, the diplomats, the president - all were there. And as I looked out, I really prayed, and I prayed for unity and that if we would listen to the message of the Holy Father, that we would be able to not leave the message there in the chamber, but to take that message back home," she said.
"It was electrifying and inspiring. I just thought it was a gift. It was a gift and a blessing, and I do feel that God used our Congressman Brian Higgins to bring that blessing to my life."
Sister Johnice noted during his address, Pope Francis called the United States the "land of the dream," and he said that America's leaders must lead with action and commitment. In keeping with this theme, Pope Francis told the chamber "not to be fearful of foreigners" because "once, we were foreigners," to a round of applause. The message was especially striking for Sister Johnice in her ministry.
"In our building, at Response to Love Center, we deal with nine different countries, and to embrace them with compassion and love and to make them a part of our family - it has really taught me to reflect as I'm going to go back home, to embrace them with that acceptance, love and compassion that the Holy Father spoke about so beautifully. He gave a beautiful message of peace," added Sister Johnice.
According to Sister Johnice, this message was given directly to politicians, some of whom have used inflammatory rhetoric to describe immigrants and refugees, but Pope Francis' call to treat everyone with dignity was meant for all. "All of us have that responsibility as well, because we're going to meet these people. We're going to meet the immigrants, but how are we going to embrace them?" she asked.
"I don't think the call is only to the issue of immigration to the politician," Sister Johnice said, "but it's for the everyday person, whom we're going to meet. It's our responsibility, and we need to respond lovingly."
Pope Francis also stressed that it is not only politicians who are called to give messages of peace, but also average people who are called to serve as instruments of peace, hope, healing, peace and justice. To live in what he called the "land of the dream," that is what people are called to do, and this gives Americans the chance to reach out to anyone who comes their way and look at them as God's fellow children.
"We're all created in the image of God, and he said that so very beautifully - despite the differences, despite the nationalities and despite ethnic groups. I was thinking of all of this. And we have to have passion and compassion, and to live the Golden Rule: to do unto others what we would want others to do to us. That really struck me as well," Sister Johnice said, highlighting a key part of the address.
During his speech, Pope Francis also emphasized the importance of preserving the dignity of life, which, while many Catholics have focused on the issue of abortion, this also refers to the lives of those who are suffering through the death penalty, and Pope Francis called for the global abolition of the death penalty. "Life is sacred and has to be respected," Sister Johnice said of this important message.
Pope Francis also emphasized the message of his encyclical, "Laudato Si," or "Blessed Be," in which he stressed the importance of caring for the environment, warned of climate change and cautioned that humans are making the earth look like "an immense pile of filth." He continued this in his address.
"We really need to emphasize the care of the earth as much as we do now," Sister Johnice said. "He talks about caring for the resources that we have been given: the trees, the water, the sunlight - all of this, and it's so Franciscan, because when you think about it, St. Francis loved nature, and he's really responding to the call and invitation of St. Francis to respect the earth, to love and to cherish it, not to hurt it."
During her trip to Washington, D.C., Sister Johnice also represented the diocese in social ministry and was able to attend the canonization of St. Junipero Serra, the first canonization to take place in the United States. The Franciscan missionary is also the first Hispanic saint.
"That was another historical moment, besides being in Congress, but God is in all of these experiences, so God was present in all of this," Sister Johnice commented. "I do believe that by my being in Washington these two days, I was called to action, and called to share, to share the message that I heard and to live that message. Like St. Francis says, 'preach, and sometimes use words.' I think my example is going to have to be speaking to the people not only in our center, but in our churches and in our neighborhood."